A Unifying Concept for the “Subjective” and "Objective” Approaches to Understanding the Musical Experience

By Roger E. Bissell

The University of Iowa

May 1970; revised August 1970

Introductory notes

It should be clear, from the context in which they appear below, that I am using the terms “objective” and “subjective” primarily in one particular, restricted sense. As they appear in the title and in opposition to one another below, they are meant to refer to the two basic types of facts or data which scientific or intellectual inquiry is aimed at: namely, physical data, which are considered extrospectively (i.e., “objective” data, which are considered by an “objective” approach), and psychological data, which are considered introspectively (i.e., “subjective” data, which are considered by a “subjective” approach).

Both types of facts are, in the broader sense of the word, “objective” facts, by which I mean that they are facts which exist independently of a particular viewer’s consciousness. I.e., whether or not a given person cares to admit it, both types of facts do exist. This recognition is an extremely important one when one is considering areas, such as music aesthetics, where attempts to theorize on phenomena are faced with both types of facts as being basic aspects to be considered.

Thus, in theorizing, I would consider a broadly “objective” approach to be one which considers all the relevant facts, and not just those facts which suit one’s taste; and which examines all those facts one has included to be sure that none of them is irrelevant. Otherwise, in the case of the former, one’s approach is narrow, arbitrary, and “subjective” (in the worst sense of the word); in the latter case, one’s approach is merely cluttered with extraneous material.

There is another, more commonly used sense of the two terms, which I definitely do not mean. It seems that some people these days hold the mistaken view that, no matter what type of facts one is considering, if one is “personally involved” in the matter—i.e., if one has something “at stake” in the conclusions to be drawn—then one’s view is automatically narrow, arbitrary, and “subjective.” They claim that it is impossible for a person to be “fair,” “impartial,” “detached,” and “objective” about anything which haseven one iota of personal significance. On this view, it is allegedly impossible to objectively (absolutely) demonstrate that one’s own opinion on a given matter is better or more reality-oriented than anyone else’s, since reality can be “sliced up” in as many different ways as there are minds to do it (discarding the possibility that various criteria, e.g., cognitive efficiency, could be used to decide which opinion is better and in what respect). I have two main criticisms to make of this view:

(1)        The logical absurdity of such a view should be obvious. If all opinions are subjective, and if, therefore, none is superior in validity to the others (or if none are valid, whatsoever), then by what standard do the “subjectivists” claim that their opinion represents an objective truth, one which must be taken seriously? By what authority do they assert that their opinion is superior in validity to my claim that certain views do represent objective truths and do have validity and superiority over other, non-valid claims? On what basis can they justify their claim that it is an objective fact that there are no objective facts? The answer is that they have no standard, no authority, and no basis for such claims. There are, however, certain motivating impulses or feelings which might lead to such views: e.g., despair, bewilderment, silent resignation, confusion—or malice. Similarly to Marxist dialectical materialistic poly-logists, they assert the equal validity of all opinions, and then proceed to loudly, intolerantly condemn anyone who does not agree with their political and economic schemes!


(2)        To me, it is difficult to tell whether this view claims that no opinions are valid, or that all opinions are valid. Either alternative is quite unpalatable from a human standpoint. The first alternative claims that, since humans are value-oriented creatures, as are all living creatures, only a robot could be “impersonally-detached” and “objective.” Only an ominiscient robot (built and programmed by whom!?) could have a so-called “objective” opinion, since (being omniscient) he knows everything about everything and (being a robot) he does not allow value-preference, bias, or feeling to enter into his opinions. It is doubtful whether such a robot could exist, however, because the mere gathering and communicating of information—not to mention the derivation of value-judgments—necessarily presupposes some standard for gathering and communicating it, which in turn presupposes a consideration of a reason for having chosen a particular standard, a reason why that particular standard was considered best (i.e., why it was valued). At any rate, we humans are denied the “objective validity” for our opinions granted to the imaginary robot—though we are granted “subjective validity” for them, if we feel that they are true. Thus, in this vein today, one witnesses the spectacle of mobs of students, blacks, and other assorted groups of protestors committing destructive acts of violence against private property, because they feel that their group has the “right” to behave in such a manner, because they feel that their group has a “good cause.” Neither of these interpretations apply to human beings, it is true. But then, neither non-value-oriented activity nor whim-orinted activity is proper to man qua man, anyway.

The important point here is that, in this mistaken sense, the terms “objective” and “subjective” are offered as false alternatives which, in one fell swoop, would obliterate the possibility of any human, value-oriented opinions having objective validity and of any objectively valid opinions being possible to man. It is this view that I am in opposition to and must reject on its fundamental premise, a mistaken conception of “objectivity.”

A further note must be made, this one concerning references. Although my primary sources are the writings of Susanne K. Langer, Leonard B. Meyer, and Eduard Hanslick, I must also acknowledge the considerable value of the following, in helping to formulate my approach to this paper: the clarification of the Aristotelian principles of definition by philosopher Ayn Rand in Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, the formulation and development of the concept “hierarchy” by Arthur Koestler in The Ghost in the Machine and The Act of Creation, and the concept of “goal-directedness” as clarified by Richard Taylor in Action and Purpose. 

“Subjective” description vs. “Objective” analysis

In order to explain their experience of a given piece of music (or of a given group of related pieces), people have generally followed one or the other of two basic and allegedly diametrically opposed approaches.

The first of these approaches is the focusing upon one’s psychological state while or after hearing a piece of music. All of one’s passions, feelings, and emotive states are (usually) superficially correlated with events in the music in order to arrive at a more or less poetic description of the music. This may be referred to as the “subjective” approach. It consists of an introspective report on one’s personal, internal reaction to a piece of music.

The other approach is what we know as analysis proper, and is aimed at the musical work itself, rather than one’s personal reaction to it. The patterns and relationships in the musical work are alone regarded as being of any intellectual significance. Elaborate schemata and tables of statistics are often included in such an explanation. (This is the approach which Leonard B. Meyer refers to as “critical analysis,” for individual works, and “style analysis,” for stylistically related groups of works.)

This, the “objective” approach, is an extrospective account of what is there in the music, external to one’s own emotional states upon hearing it. (By “objective,” I refer here not to the “impersonality” or “detachment” of one’s attitude, nor to how many of the relevant factors in a given situation one decides to exclude or include, but merely to the type of facts which are being considered: namely, “external” or “physical” or “extrospective.” In the same sense, the term “subjective” was used in the preceding paragraph, as was previously stated to be my intention in the Introductory Notes.)

The Problem of Analysis and the Problem of Style

As pointed out above, the “objective” and “subjective” approaches are the two fundamental alternatives in a consideration of the Problem of Analysis. One encounters them, and has to choose between them, each time one tries to decide in what manner one wishes to examine and understand individual works and general stylistic groupings of works.

One also encounters them, however, in dealing with the Problem of Style—i.e., when one attempts to state definitively what it is that individuates a particular piece of music from all others and what factors unify the parts of that piece, as well as when one attempts to state definitively what it is that differentiates a group of pieces from all other music and what factors there are which unify the pieces within that group.

Thus, it can be seen that the Problem of Style is in actuality a complex case of the more general Problem of Definition, or—to put it in Aristotelian terms—of identifying genus and differentia. In distinguishing between “critical analysis” and “style analysis,” Leonard B. Meyer has pointed out two levels on which the problem exists: the level of the individual entity and the level of the group to which it belongs. Since, however, all entities (as well as their parts and their combinations) display the dual characteristics of “part-ness” and “whole-ness,” it is plain to see that this problem, as a typical instance of the Problem of Definition, extends upward to ever larger groups of works and downward to ever smaller sections within a work.

When the Problem of Style is thus regarded, it is further seen to be continuous with the Problem of Analysis. That is, since analysis is the process of isolating and identifying (some or all of) the general characteristics of a thing, and since definition—in particular, style definition—is the process of isolating the one particular fundamental (or essential distinguishing) characteristic of a thing from all its other characteristics (and identifying it), it is clear that the latter process takes up where the former process leaves off. Furthermore, this continuity holds whether the approach taken is “subjective” or “objective,” i.e., whether the characteristics (data) considered are physical or psychological (extrospective or introspective). (For a lengthier discussion of stylistic definition, see my previous paper “Wagner, Art, and Life.”)

If the “subjective” approach to style is taken, one sees style as a personal, private experience, one’s response being bound up closely with one’s own psychological makeup. On such a view, one differentiates between various styles “subjectively,” according to one’s response to them (i.e., according to introspective, psychological data).

The “objective” approach to style, on the other hand, treats style as an “objectively” definable aspect of music, independent of a given listener’s emotional state. Various musical styles are differentiated between, in this case, according to their respective treatment of the basic variables of music—e.g., timbre, rhythm, pitch, duration, articulation, dynamics—and their combinations, all of which are physically measurable data.

Shortcomings and virtues of each approach

There are, of course, understandable drawbacks to either approach when applied to either problem; but then, there are redeeming factors, as well.

The “objective” approach, it is often claimed, is an artificial, cold-blooded way of looking at things. It removes the element of feeling and emotion entirely, and is too abstruse and alienating to the layman, who knows what he likes, but doesn’t know (or perhaps even care) why he likes it, and doesn’t care to follow technical charts, graphs, or tables to find out.

Its virtue, obviously, is that it treats of no data which are not there for everyone to see upon direct inspection of the musical score—everyone, that is, who is willing to go to the trouble of learning musical notation and analysis.

The main shortcoming of the “subjective” approach is the fact that its data and conclusions are not, generally speaking, publicly verifiable. For instance, two people may have two totally different overt reactions to a piece, while their extra-musical associations (image processes) were quite similar—the disparity in overt response, of course, being caused by different evaluations of the association because of the difference between their two sets of values. On the other hand, even if their overt reactions are similar, they may have been experiencing different extra-musical associations during the same performance of the piece—due to the existence, usually, of more than one image subsumed under the same emotional abstraction or “connotative complex,” to use Randian and Meyerian terminology, respectively. Hence, the problem in trying to justify the attaching of programmatic, or ideational, significance to a given piece of music, except in a very vague, general way.

The advantage is that this approach takes cognizance of emotional states which do occur to the listener, though these are admittedly impossible to fully correlate with the music in every respect and are thus ignored and downplayed by those who claim that their sole concern is with “objective,” “scientific” (publicly verifiable) facts.

Correlating the “subjective” and “objective” for true objectivity

Actually, a truly objective approach, in the broadest sense of the word, would at least attempt to take account of, and correlate, both the aspects of the music itself and the psychological responses (associative images and emotions) possible. I.e., it would consider everything objectively relevant to, and present in, a musical experience, before it claimed that it had discovered all there was to understand about that experience.

Progress toward such a desired end has been made, of course. There is a whole continuum of theories and approaches ranging from “pure subjectivity,” on the one hand—where little or no attempt is made to correlate musical events with emotional states and images (the latter being the sole consideration—to “pure objectivity,” on the other—where little or no effort is made to explain how one’s response is entailed by the musical events and their relationships (the latter being the sole consideration).

Numerous, indeed, are the approaches which try, in one fashion or another, to combine aspects of both extreme positions, with varying degrees of success. Although some of them do take considerable pains to examine both aspects of the musical experience, none of them is able to achieve a systematic correlation between the two sets of data, since none of them is based on one single unifying concept.

It is such a concept that I seek to propose at this time, a concept gleaned from—and, surprisingly, undeveloped within—two different theories pertaining to art: from Leonard B. Meyer’s theory of style and from Susanne B. Langer’s theory of art as symbol. It is with such a concept, I believe, that a beginning may be made towards synthesizing a fruitful new way of attacking the Problem of Style, as well as the Problem of Analysis.

The concept of “parameter” in music and psychology

Leonard B. Meyer, in a paper presented before the American Musicological Society National Convention (December 1969), provide a valuable lead. He pointed out the fact that:

Events [in music] are shaped by the interaction among all the parameters of music—of melody, rhythm, harmony, texture, dynamics, and so [p. 30, my italics] “[P]arameter-dominance tends to change from one style to another. Thus timbre plays a relatively minor role in patterning the music of the sixteenth century, but a crucial role in much twentieth century music; metric organization is a prime parameter in music of the 14th century, but plays practically no part in the structuring of some twentieth century compositions…Indeed, musical styles can in part be characterized in terms of the relative importance of the several parameters in shaping musical processes and structures.” [p. 32, my italics]

Thus, it is seen that Meyer regards parameter-dominance as being the differentia for musical styles, from the aspect of their “objective,” physically detectable characteristics. (This is, of course, not an unprecedented position, per se. It is, however, integrated with the rest of Meyer’s writings. It is a concept consistent with the overall structure of Meyer’s theory of music, rather than just an isolated, non-systemic, floating abstraction. For this reason, I regard Meyer’s treatment of the concept of a musical parameter as the most significant in the field of musical theory, and hence the most fitting and useful one to acknowledge.)

The Meyerian concept of a musical parameter finds a close parallel in the psychological realm, particularly in the writings of analytic philosopher Susanne K. Langer in Feeling and Form (Scriber’s & Sons, 1953). Her basic position on music (and the arts in general) is that the artwork is a symbol of human feeling—and by “feeling,” Mrs. Langer has in mind a much broader referent than the phenomenon of emotional response. She wishes to include all felt experience, all types of consciousness—such as sensations, perceptions, conceptions, memories, images, etc.—under the aegis of “feeling.” The expressiveness of music (and of all art) is due to the fact that the artwork articulates and presents ideas or concepts about feeling (felt experience) possessed by the artist. (p. 26) Thus, she views a symbol as the physical, concrete equivalent of a concept, which is iself a strictly mental product.

But how can music and feeling (felt experience) be related in such a symbol-referent relationship? Langer provides the answer in the following passage:

The tonal structures we call “music” bear a close logical similarity to the forms of human feeling—forms of growth and attenuation, flowing and stowing, conflict and resolution, speed, arrest, terrific excitement, calm, or subtle activation and dreamy lapses—not joy and sorrow perhaps, but the poignancy of either and both—the greatness and brevity and eternal passing of everything vitally felt. Such is the pattern of logical form, of sentience; and the pattern of music is that same form worked out in pure, measured sound and silence. Music is a tonal analogue of emotive life. [p. 27, my italics]

She also mentions her criteria or preconditions for such a relationship between symbol and referent:

Such formal analogy, or congruence of logical structures, is the prime requisite for the relation between a symbol and whatever it is to mean. The symbol and the object symbolized must have some common logical form. [p. 27, my italics]

This, in turn, raises the question of what characteristic, or element, of psychological (felt) experience makes possible the recognition of such a “formal analogy” to the “tonal structures we call ‘music’.” Mrs. Langer again supplies the answer when she introduces (scarcely more than in passing) the key concept of this paper—the “parameter,” or variable—in her chapter entitled “The Image of Time.” (The following passage from that chapter also includes a consideration of the “subjective,” or psychological, experiencing of time, i.e., its psychological components are presented over a finite period of time. Quoting Mrs. Langer:

The phenomena that fill time are tensions—physical, emotional, or intellectual. Time exists for us because we undergo tensions and their resolutions. Their peculiar building-up, and their ways of breaking or diminishing or merging into longer and greater tensions, make for a vast variety of temporal forms. If we could experience only single, successive organic strains, perhaps subjective time would be one-dimensional like the time clicked off by clocks. But life is always a dense fabric of concurrent tensions, and as each of them is a measure of time, the measurements themselves do not coincide. This causes our temporal experience to fall apart into incommensurate elements which cannot be all perceived all together as clear forms. When one is taken as parameter, others become “irrational,” out of logical focus, ineffable. Some tensions, therefore, always sink into the background; some drive and some drag, but for perception, they give quality rather than form to the passage of time, which unfolds in the pattern of the dominant and distinct strains whereby we are measuring it. [pp. 112-113, my italics]

The above account, attributed to “felt experience,” is also applicable to music. As Leonard B. Meyer puts it:

At any particular point of tectonic articulation some of the parameters may tend to produce closure, while others do not—they are on-going and processive. In other words, the several parameters need not be, and usually are not, congruent with one another in the shaping of process and the articulation of structure.” [from the paper cited above, pp. 30-31, my italics]

Here, then, is a basic concept common to both the “subjective” and the “objective” aspects of the musical experience: the parameter (or variable), on the basis of which analogous patterns in music and in our response to it arise.

The limits of analysis by parameter

With all of his writings on aesthetics, musical perception, and musical meaning, Meyer never explicitly identifies the unifying value of this concept. Langer herself is careful to qualify and limit its applicability:

But the fact that music is a temporal, progressive phenomenon easily misleads one into thinking of its passage as a duplication of psychophysical events, a string of events which parallels the passage of emotive life, rather than as a symbolic projection which need not share the conditions of what it symbolizes, i.e., need not present in temporal order [merely] because that import is something temporal. The symbolic power of music lies in the fact that it creates a pattern of tensions and resolutions. [p. 372]

This is apparently a reaction against those artists, such as Richard Strauss, who have claimed that their artworks follow such rigorous fidelity to detail as to represent an exact, perfect duplication of a particular emotional experience, perceptual field, or sequence of events. Granted, it is impossible to exactly duplicate a thing’s existence in every detail (whether in discouse, art, or photography); but Langer goes beyond this to underplay the importance of the possibility of presenting a thing’s essence (form or structure), which is the crucial precondition for communication and understanding.

In other words, in communication, whether verbal or artistic, it is really beside the point to state that, no matter how many details beyond the bare, skeletal, minimum essentials are included, no exhaustive statement of a thing can be made. Communication and understanding are predicated upon two people having experiences very similar in form and one of them being able to verbally (or otherwise) express this form concretely (in artistic or linguistic symbol-entities) for the other’s perception—and not upon one person being able to transplant the experience in its entirety from his mind to the other’s mind. Once the form has been communicated by the one person, and once the other person has understood the form (along with any similarity which there may be to any of his own experiences), the most important part of their interaction has taken place. The rest is merely the filling in of details peculiar to one or the other person’s context of experience.

In art, the grasping of the essence or form of a concrete artwork and the relating of this form to the form of one’s own extra-musical experience is a process of association, with its mental product being known as an association or connotation. And, similarly to the general case of communication, as Leonard B. Meyer observes:

The musical materials and their organization are the necessary causes for a given connotation but, since no summation of necessary causes can ever [necessarily] amount to a sufficient cause, the sufficient cause of any connotation experienced must be supplied by the listener. [Emotion and Meaning in Music, University of Chicago Press, p. 264]

Such a recognition works both ways, however: although the particular details of a given “connotative complex” are realized differently in the minds of different perceivers because of individual differences in imagination and memory-context, and although individual responses to a given “connotative complex” vary because of individual differences in value-context, the general form—the connotation—remains constant, universal, and communicable. I.e., while it is not always possible to correlate a given musical note or splotch of pigment on canvas or a single word to a given button on an aristocrat’s coat or to a given ripple on a brook or to a given second of time during a chase scene, the overall patterns created by parametric combinations in each of the above can be correlated. This is precisely what I shall now proceed to do within the context of a number of different art styles.

Parameters characteristic of Classical and Romantic music

Consider, for instance, the term “classical simplicity,” which is commonly held to be a stylistic trait of much of the music of the latter 18th century, notably that of Haydn and Mozart. It is in exactly the same places during a given piece of music of the “classical” style where one has a “subjective” experience of stylistic “simplicity,” that one also sees that there actually is simplicity in the treatment of the musical parameters. In most phrases in such music, the rising and falling tensions in the rhythmic, melodic, and harmonic aspects all tend to “peak” moderately and to “cadence” or “come to a resting point” all at the same time. Thus, since a congruence of musical parameters bears logical analogy to a congruence of psychological parameters, then a piece of “classical” music fitting this description will suggest, in general, a non-disruptive, status-quo type of extra-musical association.

Though “romanticism” in music is generally thought to be a 19th century phenomenon, earlier, supposedly “classical” composers such as Haydn or Mozart are not to be denied their “romantic” moments either—nor, for that matter, are still earlier composers such as J. S. Bach. The “romantic” movement in aesthetics was due to and characterized by a number of societal, philosophical, and psychological factors, but the primary one was artistic independence, which means: a constant search for new, original ways of artistically presenting their values (expressing their emotions).

Although many individual composers have strived for innovation and expressivity long before 1800, the most striking examples of music which rise above the “classical” norm were written beginning in the 19th century. It is during this time that one sees a vast development and continual exploitation of the individual parameters (e.g., innovations in tone color by addition of new instruments, bolder harmonies and dissonances, more complex rhythms)—as well as their combinations, their congruences and disjunctions—in a constant search for more unique expressivity.

Another aspect of music which was most highly and consistently developed during the 19th century is the aspect of “goal-directedness.” (“Goal-directed” here is not to be construed as implying purpose or intent on the part of notes or patterns in the music. This primary sense of the term applies only to man. In a derivate sense, however, music can be thought of as “goal-directed,” as can any artificial creation which is given a goal and a purpose for its action by man. In a metaphoric, or anthropomorphic, sense, the term also implies an analogy between aspects of the music and the basic pattern of man’s own, truly goal-directed activities.)

It is no accident that a basic similarity of pattern between music of this type, plot structure in a novel, and certain real-life experiences is apprehended (however dimly) by most people—particularly the affinity between much “romantic” music and the culminating aspect of “romantic” love, namely orgastic sexual experience! Related as an effect to each of the above experiences is a corresponding set of interrelated psychological factors, which also are perceived as being subsumed under the basic abstraction (or archetype) of “goal-directedness.” Among these psychological factors are: expectation (of a goal), tension and excitement (due to deviation from the most direct, expected route to the goal), suspense (when reaching the goal is in doubt), peak of tension (climax of action toward goal), and release of tension (resolution of climax). Also possible are multiple climaxes, i.e., multiple patterns of tension, peak, and release.

Thus, in “romantic” music, both the physical and the psychological aspects display the same type of “organic” growth toward a structural peak. In both, the parameters occur hierarchically combined into patterns which pivot upon (lead up to and away from) an obviously key, peak locus in the musical experience. And although a perfect, one-to-one correspondence between aspects of a composer’s goal-directed experience and of his concretization of it can never be achieved, sufficient similarity of pattern exists between them for the listener to understand the music in terms of its formal similarity to a previous goal-directed experience of his own.

This type of metaphoric or symbolic meaning in music is one of the most obvious, universally grasped types possible. And, significantly, it is one of the most vehemently attacked, by most of today’s aesthetic “elite,” on the grounds that it is the product of an outmoded, old fashioned “rhetoric;” i.e., heroes, attainment of goals, beauty, happiness, values are no longer supposed to be relevant to “self-respecting, modern artists!” It is when we look at what the “avant-garde” do consider to be “relevant,” however, that the real poverty of modern art can be seen by those of us who have no intention of being intimidated into giving up the “rhetoric” of “romanticism.”

Parameters characteristic of Impressionistic music

Quite separate from the more obvious imitations of nature ad the more obvious onomatopoetic effects—some of which, such as birdcalls, pre-date the Renaissance—another type of “realism” in music, known as impressionism, was exemplified in the works of French composer Claude Debussy. This type of “imitation” of nature is based upon a much more subtle analogy then above: an analogy between parameters of visual or tactile perception and the timbral and pitch parameters.

Both Leonard B. Meyer and 19th century aesthetician Eduard Hanslick identify the possibility of this type of association in music. In Emotion and Meaning in Music, Meyer says:

The unity of perceptual experience, regardless of the particular sense employed, is also demonstrated by the fact that in experience even single musical tones tend to become associated with qualities generally attributed to non-aural modes of sense perception. This tendency is apparent not only in Western culture but in the cultures of the Orient and in many primitive cultures. In Western culture, for example, tones are characterized with respect to size (large or small), color value (light or dark), position (high or low), and tactile quality (rough or smooth, piercing or round). Furthermore, it should be noted that these qualities are interassociated among themselves; that is, volume is associated with position (e.g., a large object is generally associated with a low position), and both of these are associated with color. [p. 261]

Hanslick is in basic agreement in The Beautiful in Music (1854):

There is a well-founded analogy between motion in space and motion in time; between the color, texture, and size of an object and the pitch, timbre, and strength of a tone; and it is for this reason quite practicable to pain an object musically. [p. 37] Music an undertake to imitate objective phenomena only, and never the specific feeling they arous. The falling of snow, the fluttering of birds, and the rising of the sun can be painted musically only by producing auditory impressions which are dynamically related to those phenomena. In point of strength, pitch, velocity, and rhythm, sounds present to the ear a figure bearing that degree of analogy to certain visual impressions which sensations of various kinds bear to one another…The pretension, however, to describe by musical means the “feeling” which the falling snow, the crowing cock, or a flash of lightning excites in us is simply ludicrous. [pp. 36-37]

Similarities in symbolizing the “objective” and “subjective”

In rightly affirming the ability of music to imitate “objective” phenomena (specifically, perceptual experiences), Hanslick raises another issue: whether or not “subjective” phenomena (e.g., feelings and emotions) can also be “imitated.”As we have seen above, Hanslick takes the negative viewpoint here: “Music can undertake to imitate objective phenomena only, and never the specific feeling they arouse.”

Now, if he means that, since psychological states are intangible, they cannot be directly embodied or presented in a work of art—which was the basis of his opposition to the emotionalist Wagnerian cult—then I have to concur. With Hanslick I agree that the only aspects of emotion which can be represented in music are “dynamic properties,” the “speed, slowness, strength, weakness, increasing and decreasing intensity” of “the motion accompanying psychical emotion.” (p. 24)

Granted, this “motion is only one of the concomitants of feeling, not the feeling itself.” (p. 24) But what is this “motion accompanying psychical action,” which Hanslick claims to be representable in music, i.e., which he claims is an “objective” phenomenon? It is actually a “sense of motion,” which is part and parcel of the kinesthetic sensations accompanying emotion. These kinesthetic sensations can be represented in music by the appropriate musical patterns which will arouse them, or suggest them by similarity.

Such is admittedly, at best, only an indirect representation of the emotion connected with the kinesthetic sensation. But the “imitation” of “objective” phenomena is by no means more direct than this! It, too, is based upon sensations—perceptual sensations—linked to the phenomenon it represents. Just as “motion” (kinesthetic sensation) is “only one of the concomitants of feeling, not the feeling itself,” so, too, perceptual sensation is only one of the “concomitants” of an object and not the object itself. But without such “concomitants,” we would be able to experience neither of these phenomena, “subjective” or “objective”!

So, by this standard and in this sense, I must disagree with Hanslick. Music can and does “imitate” feelings and emotions. It does so by representing or denoting their properties, which is the only way in which music may be said to “imitate” anything. I.e., no matter what one seeks to “imitate” by means of music, one must first recognize that all imitation is merely the representing of one phenomenon with another phenomenon that has been so made as to have certain of its characteristics bear similarity or analogy to certain corresponding characteristics of the phenomenon represented.

Parameters characteristic of Modern music

Thus far, we have seen that different perceptual and conceptual experiences, as well as emotional experiences, are capable of being portrayed in music by means of analogy—i.e., are symbolically representable in music by proper handling of the musical parameters. In light of this, how are we to interpret the typical examples of 20th century music?

Consider the trend known as 12-tone, or serial, music. Just as Wagner was able—through his avoidance of the very harmonic and melodic resolutions which his listeners expected and took for granted—to connote renunciation, denial, and anguish (as well as ecstasy, by making those very same expectations reach great proportions before defeating them) in his music-drama Tristan und Isolde; so, also, was Schoenberg able to make even more violently anguished statements some half a century later, in the early 1900’s. Schoenberg’s social comments, however, employed instead the perceptually unintelligible, the perceptually bizarre—the 12-tone method of composition, eerie and shrill tone colors, etc.—in order to state metaphorically how the then-present world condition (one hundred years of relative peace having been breached by the outbreak of World War I) did not make sense within the wider context of human progress.

Although Schoenberg’s social comments presupposed a conceptual judgment about the nature of world, most modern composers seem to have unconsciously, uncritically accepted the unintelligible as the given, the stylistic norm for the 20th century, rather than to have arrived at a conscious estimate of the world and then formulated a conscious intent to present it that way. All of them succeed, however, in metaphorically conveying that they view the world as being essentially unintelligible, whether or not they would consciously admit it or not.

Caveats about metaphors and the composer’s “message”

As a general note, I must admit that it is true that not all intended metaphors are adequately actualized in a given piece of music. But this is so merely because not all composers achieve enough insight and skill to be equal to the task. Nor may a given composer be fully consistent in doing so himself.

Granted, also, that not all composers claim that their music is a metaphorical statement about things as they are or should be or might be. Some are merely content to work toward their own stated goal of being good, original stylistic innovators or of being skilled craftsmen working within previously established styles. But, even when explicit metaphors are disavowed, it is still true that—due to the nature of the relationship between music and psychological response, via parametric analogy—implied metaphors, i.e., implied statements about the world or about man, are inescapable. (Such an issue, however, is beyond the scope of this present paper.)

Furthermore, when widespread public reaction to a piece of music indicates their having apprehended the composer’s explicitly stated philosophic theme, it is one reasonably accurate indication that the composer has succeeded in the task of finding the corresponding, appropriate parameter-combinations to do the job of translating his particular “message” from psychological forms into musical terms, in such a way that the process can be readily reversed by the thoughtful observer.


Admittedly, this is but a preliminary sketch of the approach I advocate—based on the concept common to both aspects of the musical experience: the parameter—for viewing and attacking the Problems of Style and Analysis. As the above examples were designed to illustrate, however, such an approach serves well to bring into mutual focus two narrower approaches, long mistakenly thought to be at odds.

If it should be agreed that my proposal has genuine merit, then others more interested than I in the actual “meat-and-potatoes” aspect of the fields of style and analysis in music should find it a very fruitful tool for combining what have traditionally been regarded as two inherently incompatible approaches to the understanding of the musical experience.